Obviously, patients should still stick with their current gout medications, according to the lead author. "They can go out and eat the cherries, but they shouldn't abandon their medical treatment at all," said Dr Yuqing Zhang of Boston University School of Medicine.
Doctors have reported that some patients recommend cherries to prevent gout attacks, but the connection has only been studied a few times before, according to Dr Zhang.
His group's preliminary investigation, published in the Arthritis & Rheumatism, is just the first step in understanding the link between eating cherries and gout risk, he said.
How the study was done
For their study, he and his colleagues recruited gout patients over the Internet to take online surveys about their attacks. All the participants had had a gout attack in the last 12 months, had been diagnosed with gout by a doctor, lived in the U.S. and were at least 18 years old. They also had to release their medical records to the researchers.
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For the next year, the gout patients filled out surveys every time they had an attack.
The survey asked questions about the symptoms, the drugs used to treat the attack and about certain risk factors, including what they had eaten.
The patients also took similar surveys at the beginning of the study, and every three months while it was underway.
Of the 633 gout patients enrolled in the study, 224 said they had eaten fresh cherries during the year, 15 said they had consumed cherry extract and 33 had both.
During the year, the researchers collected information on 1 247 gout attacks, for an average of about two per patient.
Lots of questions to answer
Overall, the researchers found that eating cherries over a given two-day period was linked to a 35% decrease in the risk of having a gout attack during that period, compared to not eating cherries.
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Consuming cherry extract was tied to a 45% risk reduction, and eating both fresh cherries and extract was tied to a 37% lower risk.
The biggest risk reduction, however, came with eating fresh cherries while taking allopurinol. That combination was linked to a 75% reduction in the risk of a gout attack compared to allopurinol alone.
There are a few possibilities for why these associations exist, researchers say. One is that the vitamin C in cherries can influence blood levels of uric acid, according to Dr Allan Gelber, who co-wrote an editorial accompanying the study.
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But Dr Zhang said there are still a lot of questions to answer and more studies to be done, including a randomised controlled trial.
Dr Gelber, from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, said the study also shows that a patient's activities influence their risk of a gout attack - not just their medication.
"It educates the reader that he or she can do something in his or her daily behaviour to diminish gout risk. The patient is in the driver's seat," he said.